How the Italian TV show called “The Hyenas”(Le Iene)rewarded my work by offering me to a Tunisian smuggler
By Matteo Fraschini Koffi
LOMÉ, Togo – Since a few weeks, I hesitate to pick up the phone if I don't recognize the number calling me. I'm not so worried that a smuggler wants the date of my arrival in Tunis. What worries me the most is: what should I say to him? That it was all a farce just to get him arrested? That a renowned Italian TV program called “The Hyenas” wanted me to pretend to be a migrant before leaving me in the African-Italian media desert? I should have ignored that message on my Togolese WhatsApp at 4.48pm on Tuesday 26 September: “Hi Matteo, how are you? When can I steal 5 minutes of your time?” It was an old acquaintance from the TV program, let's call her “Hyena-1”. “Even now,” I replied reflexively, regretting it immediately. I was very busy, I made it clear from the beginning, but still: it was for work.
The Hyenas wanted to capture on camera a Tunisian sea-smuggler who advertises his "transport services" on TikTok and Facebook. To lure him into the net, however, they needed bait. As it happened in the past, they asked me if I knew anyone that could fit the “bait” profile. I couldn't think of anyone. Moreover, Hyena-1's tone seemed to suggest: "Wake the fxxx up Matteo, don’t you get that you are the only crazy person we know capable of doing such things?!" With great reluctance, and certainly not out of false modesty, I stammered: "Well..in case..if I really can't find anyone...I think I can do it myself."
Hyena-1 was happy but gave no news for a while. Great, I could refocus my attention on the many things I had to do before flying back to Italy after a year of absence. On October 9th, however, Hyena-1 got in touch again: “Hi Matteo! How are you? My colleague XXX – Hyena-2 – will call you for the job I told you about.” Nooooo!!! I responded with a telegram-like message: "[Let's talk] Tomorrow, however, [for] I’m exhausted and I have to meet with [an official of the] World Bank".
In a few minutes, the young and kind voice of Hyena-2 sent me a vocal message: “[...]We needed an African man, with an African SIM-card, who speaks well – African?, I was about to add – French, and that was willing to lend us a hand. I wanted to understand if you might still be interested, we would obviously be very pleased, and I also wanted to know if for some reason you had to return to Italy. I look forward to hearing from you, thank you very much!” I replied that I would help but that I didn't have any social media (I closed Facebook at the first idiotic comment and I tried twice to sign up on Instagram without success). I was hoping to get a welcome: “What a loser! No social media with your job? Okay, talk to you next time!”
I then told her my Italian dates: less than two weeks between the end of October and the beginning of November in which I had to invest everything I (didn't) have in promoting my latest book. Hyena-2 was unstoppable: “Thank you very much Matteo”, followed by another vocal message: “[...] obviously it's absolutely absurd to charge ‘sea-crossing’ trips on social media for poor migrants who are in need, and so we wanted to try to expose the Tunisian smuggler, right? To do this, our TV presenter – Hyena-3 – is talking to this man telling him that she is trying to get her (fake) boyfriend to Italy. Maybe you might have to talk to him, we're still trying to understand that.” It wasn’t over.
“Surely what he requests is first of all a photo.” Damn, I hadn't thought about the photo... “Because he asked Hyena-3 just now to send him a photo of her boyfriend. So, the only thing is that once your participation is confirmed, for us you are in and we have to complete the mission, this is the most important thing of all [...] Let me organize a phone call for tomorrow, so to proceed [...]". What a mess, offering my face as a fake migrant to a smuggler didn't sit well with me. I told Iena-2 that we will talk about it but that I was available.
Regarding my doubts about the photo, Hyena-2 replied: “Eh, no, that's true, of course! – and then changed the subject completely – But the fact that you don't have any social media is an advantage for us. It means that they [the smugglers] could only find you if they did a specific research – she was convinced to cheer me up – so I told Hyena-3 that you are a journalist and writer, and so if they search on Google something comes up, but the fact that you have no social media is an advantage. I thank you infinitely for your availability and I'll talk about it for a moment with our TV creator.”
Hyena-2 troubled me. It wasn't her way of speaking: “absolutely absurd, obviously, of course, etc.” It wasn't even the photo she had on her WhatsApp: a serene and proud expression in front of a building with a "FEELS LIKE PRADA" sign at the top. I was worried about her total indifference for my safety. For the human being to whom she asked to face some concrete risks. I expect it from a television network, everything is business, but not from a colleague. A TV-investigation like this one, if organized superficially, could have cost me dearly. Tunisian smugglers don't like African-Italian journalists.
Things were moving very fast. On October 10th I was on the phone with Hyena-2 and Hyena-4, "the creator" of the TV program. Having arrived late on the call, the latter gave me the impression that it wasn't him who wanted something from me, but the opposite. It seemed that I had bothered him by answering his call. He didn't have time to explain the context of the job in detail. For him I simply had to get in touch with the smuggler, understand if he was authentic, and organize a meeting with him in Tunis, face to face. The Hyenas' cameras would then come out “Michael Moore-style” and we would all go home happy... except for the smuggler, of course.
I followed Hyena-4's talk with concern. Every now and then I interrupted him on purpose to provoke him but in truth I would have liked to ask him more questions about the job. Nothing, he couldn't waste time, he had more important things to do than talk to "the bait". All he wanted from me was: "Yes Sir, I'll get to work immediately, Sir!" After three minutes of him blurting out “tufting gun-style” phrases and after his snorting because I dared to repeat a question I thought he hadn't heard, he disappeared. Believing she had brought home a success, Hyena-2 nonchalantly forwarded me the hot potato: articles, links, videos in which the smuggler advertises himself and desperate migrants that kept thanking him for the sea-crossing. The icing on the cake: the messages exchanged between the smuggler and Hyena-3, the TV presenter. Quickly analyzing the material I breathed a sigh of relief, the work wouldn't take me long.
However, I noticed that Hyena-3, although writing in good French, made some unforgivable mistakes. “Good evening, my boyfriend is looking for a boat from Tunis to Lampedusa island in Italy, can you help him?” The smuggler, all excited, replied: "Yesss, where are you?" and he mentioned the money almost immediately: a thousand Euros for a three-hour crossing of the Mediterranean. He could organize everything in two days. However, Hyena-3 had not responded to the smuggler's call which occurred shortly after the first contact. Probably to remain credible she tried to call him back. No reply. It wouldn't surprise me if the trafficker had smelled something rotten right from the start. Instead of cutting short the conversation, Hyena-3 told him that her boyfriend was…Libyan. I met many African migrants who wanted to reach Italy from Libya. But I’ve never met a Libyan migrant who would stop in Tunis to reach Lampedusa.
Wouldn't it have been more logical to choose any other African nationality? Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Somalia, DRCongo. African States that, in total silence compared to other wars, are experiencing years of unspeakable violence. Or countries marked by grave economic and social challenges such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau etc. The rotten smell increased when, in addition to the imaginary Libyan migrant, Hyena-3 asked for the smuggler's home address. The latter told her that her boyfriend had to reach his house and wait for the boat with the other migrants. At this point the trafficker started asking questions. “Send me a photo of the migrant,” was one of the requests. At that moment the dialogue between the two began to crumble. The photo of the alleged Libyan-migrant boyfriend, obviously, did not exist.
The smuggler began to be on WhatsApp less and less. Hyena-3 asked him why and he replied: "For security reasons – adding – La loi m'envoyée moi 7 ans". From the ungrammatical French it wasn’t clear whether he was already imprisoned for seven years or whether he was running the risk of going to prison for the same period. The last mistake was asking for clarification with a simple: “Why?” From that moment, as far as I know, the smuggler disappeared. And this is how “The Hyenas” turned to the only black Italian stupid enough to agree to reopen the communication with a sea-criminal.
Hyena-2 was impatient: “Hi Matteo, Good morning! How are you? Have you had a chance to think about it? Can you help us?" I don’t sleep, but it was still morning. I called her and accepted. Together with the smuggler's WhatsApp she sent me a voice message (3 minutes long): "There are three important things: the first is that you speak in French," Really? I hadn't understood that yet! The second: “If possible, change the profile photo, forgive me for the lack of sensitivity, I hope to say it in the most ‘politically correct’ way possible, if it were possible to put the photo of a person who…if it were possible also a photo of you, but a photo that shows a person in need, therefore in financial difficulty, in short: not a photo on a yacht.” I could not take it any longer.
The third: "If your name appears on WhatsApp, change it to another name, because obviously the fact that your name is Matteo could raise some doubts..." Once the obvious things were over, she concluded: “If he wants this meeting with us, we'll show up with you there, where he is, and we'll catch him. The goal is to aim for a meeting. [...] If it's okay with you, you can start [...] if you have any doubts or concerns, just write me, I'm here anyway, I'll help you with whatever you need.” I replied: “Ok, I'll get organized as soon as I can, I guess I'll have to throw away the [telephone] number then...” Not even two days later, Friday 13 October: “Hi Matteo, you got any news?" I replied that I would give her news by the end of the week. As stated from the beginning, I was very busy.
Sunday another message (9am): “Hi Matteo, remember that today I have to give some news (emoji with eyes full of tears)” My reply: a thumb up, nothing else. I stopped my work, made a nervous elephant noise and changed the name on the WhatsApp-Business associated with my Senegalese number. Finally, I took a selfie: t-shirt with holes and a hat, all in black. At 2h55pm I confirmed to Iena-2 that I sent the first message. At 4h10pm: “Hi Matteo, nothing yet? Could you send me the screenshot?” What a stress!! I sent her the screenshot and reassured her that I would probably receive a response in the evening.
At 1h41am the following morning the Tunisian smuggler replied: “Are you in Tunis??” I was now "inside" as “The Hyenas” wanted me and I had to stay inside until the end. Time to roll, I repeated my travel plans to Hyena-2, mentioning a few days in Italy that we could use to fly to Tunis for the meeting. Surprisingly, she replied that Hyena-4, the TV creator, just changed his mind and now wanted the meet as late as possible. Not for October but for early November. So, all I had to do was keep the smuggler at bay by telling him that I was travelling, etc. Hyena-2: “Please don't make the mistake of letting him understand that you have money to travel because I imagine that an economic-migrant...” I was struggling to listen to her by then.
I told her that she had to trust me, I’ve been doing these things for years. For a few days I therefore established a WhatsApp-relationship with this Tunisian sea-trafficker. I also confirmed his authenticity with other African sources. I regularly forwarded screenshots of our conversations to Hyena-2 who seemed less and less stressed out about continuing with the job. I also managed to get a discount for the sea-crossing: instead of a thousand Euros asked to Hyena-3, the TV presenter, I got it down to 700 Euro. Maybe even the smuggler felt sorry for my photo. He was now ready for the trap! Now came the time, always embarrassing for me, to ask for information about my compensation.
Hyena-2 separated the response in two. First written: “Hi Matteo, good morning” Then oral: “Thanks for the screenshots and everything, I wanted to tell you that it is very, very important for us to meet him to pay him in person”, she repeated things already said many times. “Regarding your payment I have to talk to the TV production instead. I don't know if you mean that there should be a money compensation for you”, I couldn't believe it. “Let me start by saying that usually...mmm... “The Hyenas” obviously take care of paying expenses, accommodation, travel – my blood was boiling – but they hardly give compensation except in rare cases, often even VIP guests are not paid – VIP guests?? – But we can eventually see...” She concluded on a strange personal note: “Sorry but I didn’t have my coffee yet, some really complicated days, and I don't deny that I took a little time this morning to, I don't know, go forward with my personal life [giggle].”
I often don't get paid for my work. I had to unlearn article 36 of the Italian constitution while doing this job. But I thought: this is “The Hyenas”, a big Italian TV program. Without compensation I couldn’t continue, I had much else to do. Paid little, but paid. Hyena-2 assured me that "by today" she would let me know, "not to worry", but she wanted to underline that these things do not depend on her. Meanwhile the smuggler was putting some pressure on me. We agreed that I had to call him once I was in Tunis. He also sent me a vocal message in which he asked with some insistence where exactly I was. Other than Tunis, I had to think of a Tunisian town, XXX, which later turned out to be the same one where he lives.
The road was clear. It just depended on my payment. “Matteo don't worry, really – Hyena-2 kept writing – I'm very correct, I waited to answer you because unfortunately being able to catch the TV producer to ask her something is always quite a long process. But the interest in continuing is absolutely there. Forgive me if you thought otherwise due to my absence. If it were up to me we could also go to the Antarctic (two laughing emojis) but The Hyenas’ production always tends to spend as little as possible. But don't worry, tomorrow I'll put pressure on her by saying that if she doesn't give me a feedback we'll lose you.” It was October 22nd. Since then just silence.
Before returning to Lomé, during my short period in Italy, I sent to Hyena-2 one of my articles on internal migration in Africa published by the Italian daily "Avvenire". I then forwarded her the most recent screenshot of the smuggler confirming our imminent meeting. And finally, a week in advance, I warned her of (former Italian Prime Minister) Matteo Renzi's arrival in Senegal. I was hoping to revive a discussion that had been dead for days. No response although Iena-2 was always on WhatsApp. Some friends advised me to leave it alone: "The Hyenas are no longer the TV program they used to be", they commented.
And that’s why since over a month, when I receive calls from unknown numbers, I check if the Tunisian smuggler is connected. But like “The Hyenas” he also seems too busy to write me. Or maybe he got offended by how things went between us. Can we blame him? Instead, I continue to ignore social media, more out of mere laziness than out of true conviction. I can barely update my website. A photo agency I work with forced me to install WhatsApp at the end of 2018. After 20 years of journalism in Africa I'm starting to lose the energy I once had. And when friends ask me why I haven't yet subscribed to Instagram, Facebook, X, TikTok, etc., I always answer like Robert De Niro: “They’re just another thing able to complicate my life.”
Matteo Fraschini Koffi (Journalist & Writer)